Hispaniola is an island divided. The larger portion comprises the Dominican Republic, best known for its lushly appointed beachside resorts set against hills of tropical rainforest. Beyond those hills, however, and a highly patrolled, barbed wire border lies hurricane-ravaged Haiti, one of the poorest and most distressed countries in the world. It’s a dichotomy that rarely touches the consciousness of visitors, yet to the observant eye, any excursion into the countryside reveals a very different DR than the one presented to tourists.
Such disparity is the ‘real DR’, and can be experienced the moment you step off the aircraft. Like many developing nations, tourists are make-work projects if only to give you a ‘visa ticket’ (for a fee) at the start of a snaking line-up so it can be returned at the end of the line. At least tickets are recycled. But I digress.
In the last 10 years, the desire for hot weather holidays has fuelled lucrative developments all along the DR’s sandy coastline. Many resorts, like Barcelo Punta Cana, are fabulous all-inclusive destinations that serve up a mind-boggling variety of activities: windsurfing, sea kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, tennis, golf, ongoing games and meringue lessons around the pool, plus lively evening entertainment. Any off-resort excursions have generally been to Santo Domingo, the country’s capital and a World Heritage Site. Its colonial heritage is a delight to explore, particularly the walled Zona Colonial where cobblestone streets weave around 500 years of history including intriguing facades that lead to stunning courtyards, antiquities of faded opulence, and shops crammed with local treasures.
Moving the sugar cane
As more visitors seek out vacation experiences beyond sun and surf, eco-tours have boomed. While hearts of stamina can take to back country excursions on mountain bikes, a four-seater jeep safari provides a far easier option, mainly because temperatures can average upwards of 26 degrees. Their popularity has grown so much that in five years, convoys have gone from half a dozen vehicles, to teams of up to 20 jeeps which ramble through, up, and over the pot-holed dirt tracks to some of the most beautiful parts of the island.
Sadly, however, the stopping points have become authentically ‘polished’. The mountain farm now has a purpose-built cabana under which the owner does a show and tell on harvesting his organic coffee and chocolate; the stop over at the hand-rolled cigar demonstration is 20-minutes too long in the hope that riders will purchase products; and the advertised horse-riding adventure is actually along a dusty road that kicks dirt into your face on the return trip when horses speed back to the shade and hay of their stables.
Cynicism aside, the safaris are still a welcome interlude to lolling around the pool with an umbrella in your drink. Most especially for the local scenery that ranges from picturesque Dominican communities lined with bright red ginger flowers, papaya and tamarind trees, to the more rambling, make shift Haitian homesteads. The latter belong to those (mostly illegal) migrants who eke out a living on the sugar fields in a lifestyle reminiscent of the poorly run slave plantations once seen in America’s deep south.
This is where the cultural disparity between easy going Dominicans and the Haitians is most evident. Where friendly Dominicans will smile and wave at the jeeps, the Haitians will converge on every vehicle with outstretched hands. Adults release tiny tots towards the convoy while larger children grab the cross bars for a few yards, questing for money, your camera, and other resources. Traveling through the sky-high sugar canes, they emerge like baseball players from the movie, Field of Dreams, (baseball is, incidentally, a big industry on this island as evidenced by the number of Dominicans playing the big leagues), and although our guides advise us not to give money-it encourages the children to skip school-these youngsters are a persistent brood. And they represent a ‘caste’-like relationship between the two ethnic descents which, away from the resorts, is almost palpable. It’s certainly not something you’ll hear from any tourism official, but it does exist as in the underbelly of an otherwise perfectly crafted Caribbean paradise.
Photos (in the order they appear):
- Jeep Safari photo by Bill Vanderford
- Cigar Rolling photo by Chris McBeath
- Horseback guide photo by Erik de Leon
- Moving Sugar Cane photo by Bill Vanderford
- Dominican Children photo by Erik de Leon
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay: Barcelo have hotel resorts through the DR; check out www.barcelo.com
Tourism information: 888/494-5050 or www.visithispaniola.com